Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 6–For Immediate Release

“Just once, I’d like to hear you use the word ‘we’. Because we’re all rooting from the sidelines, hoping that you’ll decide whatever you think is right for our lives.”

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After last week’s thoughtful tussle with history, it was back to business with a vengeance for this week’s Mad Men. With Matthew Weiner scripting solo for the first time since the season premiere, this week saw the fortunes of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on some kind of insane rollercoaster, as Big Decisions were made by sub-cliques among the partners who surely should have checked with the others before making them. As ever, it turned out to be (by a very lucky combination of circumstances), Don and Roger who came up smelling of roses, while the ever-unlucky Pete Campbell saw his stock both at work and at home go plunging.

Continue reading “Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 6–For Immediate Release”

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 10–Christmas Waltz

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM SUNDAY NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 10 YET.

“People buy things because it makes them feel happier.”

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It’s December 1966 for the guys and girls at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and with Christmas around the corner, what better time for a meditation on all things materialistic and consumerist? For the cash-strapped Lane Pryce and newly single Joan Harris, it’s a meditation about money, but for the not-seen-for-ages Paul Kinsey it’s a literal meditation – he’s joined the Hare Krishnas.

With so many episodes recently having centred around Don and Megan, Peggy and Ginsberg, and Pete and Roger, it was a nice change to have the focus changed to other characters, some of whom have seemed rather neglected of late. Lane and Joan in particular, after having been quite prominent early in the season, have been rather pushed to the background in recent weeks.

Lane, who seems to have brought English reserve to a new level in not acknowledging his depressing life, is finally having the financial meltdown hinted at early in the season. With Europe in 2012 undergoing a similar meltdown, it’s tempting to see Lane’s predicament as a timely comment on current events, though with the caveat that the script must have been written quite some time ago.

Perhaps it’s because he’s a fellow Englishman, but I like Lane, and found his desperate efforts to avoid personal ruin while hiding his money worries even from his own wife simultaneously comic and uncomfortable. We already knew that he’s having problems paying for private school for his son Nigel (a name that telegraphs Englishness for American screenwriters but is far less common here than they think). Now it seems that Her Majesty’s tax office is rather keen to get its hands on the $8000 of back taxes Lane owes. Like, right this minute.

So Lane finally blew his English cool at his wife (“Get back to bed right this minute!”), then proceeded to spend the rest of the episode desperately trying to get the firm in which he’s a partner to pay his tax bill. Plan A was to borrow $50,000 on the firm’s account, then tell the partners that the firm was ‘unexpectedly’ better off than they’d thought to the tune of that amount. Thus, everyone could get an immediate Christmas bonus, Lane’s own being the amount he needed.

That’s some dubious stuff right there, but that plan stalled (like economic growth under David Cameron) when Don, Roger, Pete and Bert weren’t that bothered about getting a bonus so soon. So, it was off to Plan B – forge Don’s signature on a company check. OK, you could see that as an ‘advance’ on Lane’s bonus, but I think it’s basically embezzlement.

And the whole plan was totally torpedoed when Mohawk Airlines temporarily withdraw their business, and all the other partners ‘heroically’ decide to forego their bonuses so the rest of the staff could have some. Lane’s obviously going to be in big trouble quite soon, when he has to explain that he did get a bonus, on a check Don didn’t really sign, from a $50,000 windfall the company didn’t really have. Lane might be in the advantageous position of Chief Finance Officer, but he’s going to be lucky to get away with all that.

Jared Harris was, as ever, excellent as Lane throughout. I particularly enjoyed his sly method of persuading his wife that they didn’t need that Christmas trip to England that he couldn’t afford, and his increasingly badly repressed desperation as his plans went awry and he was reduced to actual thievery from his own company.

Still, with the renewed possibility of business from Jaguar cars, Lane might – just – be able to balance the books before he’s caught. It actually took me a few seconds to figure out what new client Pete was so joyful about, due to the American insistence on pronouncing the name “Jag-wah”, rather than the British “Jag-you-er”. Still, as a classic car enthusiast, their inclusion meant I was blessed with a visit to a New York Jaguar showroom boasting the latest 1966 models.

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With Pete having foregone the chance to drive a Mark 2 (just as well considering his inability to drive even an auto transmission American car), it was up to Don and Joan, masquerading as a married couple, to take a test drive. After having spent the last few weeks as an agony aunt for everyone else in the office, it was clearly Joan’s turn to have a horrid time. That’s what happens to any character in this show when the scriptwriter decides to focus on them – it’s never good news.

For Joan, the bad news came in the form of being served divorce papers on behalf of her nasty estranged husband. I thought that was what she wanted anyway, but no, she went ballistic at the (admittedly incompetent) receptionist who allowed her husband’s lawyer into the office, chucking the model Mohawk plane at her. After Lane’s outburst earlier, this was a chance for another normally collected character to explode. Lucky for her, it was Don who was there to pick up the pieces, and off they went to the Jag showroom where the desperately unhappy Joan, quite sensibly, espoused the ‘family car’ Mark 2 in favour of the gorgeous XKE (“also known as the E-Type”, the salesman explained, accurately).

Sadly, we didn’t get to see the XKE cruising the streets of 1966 Manhattan (perhaps its real owner wouldn’t allow that). But it did take Don and Joan to a nearby bar, and one of those trademark Mad Men character revealing discussions. Turns out Joan’s furious at the divorce papers because it’s Greg divorcing her, not the other way round – as though the breakup of the marriage was somehow her fault. This led to an interesting discussion on the merits (or otherwise) of marriage, and Joan’s dating chances as a newly divorced single mother.

Along the way, the theme of materialism, so crucial to the show, was touched on in a big way. Don’s not impressed with the XKE, and Joan thinks it’s because he’s happy (has she been watching the same show I have?). The implication is clear – as Don says, “people buy things because it makes them feel better”. Because in the world as Mad Men sees it, there’s always enough unhappiness to keep consumerism chugging along.

Some people, though, choose to fill the void another way – with religion. A large part of the show was devoted to a slightly less weighty subplot in which Harry Crane had to deal with the return of Paul Kinsey, left behind when the original Sterling Cooper was taken over by McCann Erickson. Kinsey’s been drifting ever downward since, and having hit rock bottom is the perfect target for hip new religion/cult, the Hare Krishnas.

Harry’s usually very much a background character in the show, and it was nice to see him get his own little subplot. The scene of him caught up in a Krishna chantalong was hilarious – and historically interesting, as presumably the ‘Swami’ in charge was the cult’s original founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. But this subplot had its serious side too, once you got over the hilarity of the perma-smiling Kinsey done up in Krishna robes.

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Paul’s at rock bottom, and he needs Harry to try and sell a spec script he’s written for Star Trek. Only trouble is, the script, cringingly entitled ‘The Negron Complex’ (“the twist is that the Negrons are white”) is terrible. How can Harry tell his erstwhile friend that his dreams of TV writing are never going to come true? And on top of that, Kinsey’s prospective Krishna girlfriend, the manipulative Lakshmi, then goes and has sex with Harry in his office, to try and ensure that Kinsey’s dream of a return to commercialism will never come true. What’s an embarrassed married ad exec meant to do, refuse?

In the end, Harry came up with the face-saving tactic of telling Paul that “a reader” had loved his script, but they couldn’t take it on. And then giving him $500 to hotfoot it off to LA and live his screenwriting dream. It’s hard to tell whether this was a selfless gesture on Harry’s part to get Paul out of the Krishnas’ (and Lakshmi’s) clutches, or whether it was just a payoff to make sure that the increasingly embarrassing Paul never bothered him again. This being Mad Men, I’d tend toward the latter theory.

So quite a low key episode this week, that nonetheless had things to say, and gave some welcome plot advancement to some characters who’ve been sadly neglected of late. Clearly Joan’s beginning to go through the same kind of existential crisis that Don permanently lives in, and Lane’s more concrete problems seem set to come back and bite him some time soon. With only three more episodes left to savour this season, I’m wondering which of these aspects is going to ramp up in time for the season finale. OK, Mad Men is more restrained than, say, Game of Thrones, but even Mad Men usually ups the dramatic ante for the end of the season. I can’t help wondering whether Lane’s short sighted desperation is about to lead to a crisis for the whole of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Finally, this week’s Hideous Checked Sport Coat count: zero. But Roger more than made up for it with this tasteful shirt:

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Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 5 – Signal 30

“Things seem so… random, all of a sudden. And time feels like it’s speeding up.”

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Poor old Pete Campbell. It’s easy to dislike the obnoxious little toe rag – and kudos to the likeable Vincent Kartheiser for achieving that – but you can’t help feeling sorry for him. Maybe it’s karma, but nothing, absolutely nothing in his life ever works out the way he wants it to – chiefly, of course, his rather sad desire to be just like Don. Pete was front and centre in this episode – shamefacedly attending a stereotypically gruesome Driver’s Ed film at the opening, perhaps feeling like getting his drivers license would make him feel more of a man; and crying in a lift before crawling into bed with his unsatisfying wife at the end. In between, as usual, Pete’s life was a symphony of chaos as he tried and failed to be more of ‘a man’ than he is.

Not that it was all about Pete, though we’ll come back to his catalogue of disasters in a while. Like last week, the episode kept a focus on just a few of the characters, and what they had in common; their jobs and their seemingly empty marriages.If last week’s theme was The Long Dark Night Of The Soul, this week’s was Great Men (and Pete) And Their Wives. As Rod Serling might have put it, “Picture a series of hollow men… their lives unfulfilled at home, seeking empty solace in their work. Portraits of marriages on their way to Signal 30… in The Twilight Zone.”

The marriages in question were those of Pete, Don, Lane, Ken (nice to see him getting something to do again) and even, tangentially, Roger. Along the way, we learned some surprising things about a few of them, impressive for characters we thought we’d known for nearly five years. Ken, it turns out, has been quietly keeping up with his stories and making a bit of a (false) name for himself as a writer of pulp sci fi (hence the Twilight Zone reference). Now a publisher wants to collect twenty of his stories into an anthology, something he’d rather keep quiet.

Unfortunately for him, his proud but unthinking wife Cynthia had to go and blurt it out in front of Don and Pete at an uncomfortable soiree in Pete’s suburban home. And when Roger hears about it, he’s none too pleased about one of his best men moonlighting. After all, for Roger, the job is enough; but as Don tells Pete later, “Roger’s unhappy. You’re not.”

Still, Ken’s marriage to Cynthia seems pleasant enough compared to the hidden emptiness his coworkers are feeling. We know about Don, of course; yet again here, he seemed like yesterday’s man in his relationship with Megan. She wants to go out and have fun with their (read, “her”) friends; he wants, as he admits in a drunken moment of honesty, to “have babies”, something she’s plainly not ready for.

Lane, on the other hand, was finally letting his rather stereotypical English reserve slip to reveal the bottled up passion underneath. It started as he unwillingly let his wife drag him to a Manhattan ‘English pub’ to watch the 1966 World Cup Final (historical references abounded this week). Presently, we were subjected to the rather astonishing sight of Lane, roaringly drunk, cheering the winning England team and slurring his way through “God Save the Queen”.

Bizarre enough, but more was to come, as we saw Lane attempting to woo (in a business sense) the CEO of Jaguar US, who’d offered to bring his business to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. I must confess, as an Englishman used to seeing American TV misconceptions of my culture, I was watching all of these scenes like a hawk, just waiting for the usual slips in dialogue or setting. But no, all was pretty accurate, as you’d expect from a show as meticulous about its detail as Mad Men. The pie and mushy peas in the pub looked real enough, the English accents sounded real, and even Lane’s statement about Jaguar’s imminent merger with the British Motor Corporation was spot on. Well done, Mr Weiner!

Lane’s unexpected snagging of a major advertising account threaded through the episode, entwining the scripts’ examination of our heroes’ professional lives. Roger in particular got a great scene in which we were reminded that he’s far more than a boorish, drunken buffoon; he’s actually a master at his work. The scene in which he educated Lane about his technique of faking drunkenness and using psychological tactics to win over clients showed why he’s a partner in the agency, and revealed him to be far more clever and subtle than we’ve seen of late. Intriguing that this should come up in an episode directed by John Slattery, the man whose portrayal of Roger makes him quite my favourite character.

The other side of the story, our heroes’ marriages, was encapsulated in the centrepiece of the episode, a magnificently strained social evening at Pete and Trudi’s Cos Cob home as he tried vainly to demonstrate to Don and Ken (his former rival) that he was “the man with everything”.The infighting for the position of alpha male began almost immediately, with Pete vainly trying the tactic of showing off his giant radiogram: “It’s like having a miniature orchestra”. Then Don turned up, and it became a contest for who could wear the most eye-burningly hideous checked sport coat (another continuing theme this year):

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Plainly, Don won that one.

Amusingly, neither Don nor Megan could remember the name of Ken’s wife (causing a laugh out loud moment as she realised and involuntarily exclaimed “Cynthia!”). But Trudi was at her most charming, despite Pete’s drunkenly obnoxious ‘gracious host’ turn. Conversation at the dinner table took a gruesome turn as Pete took some relish in discussing Texas sniper Charles Whitman’s university tower shootings.

Then Ken unwillingly told a story that seemed (in a way that wasn’t entirely clear) to sum up the episode’s themes with a sci fi story: ‘The Punishment of X-4’, about a powerless robot whose only means of asserting himself was to remove a vital bolt in a bridge, killing everyone on it. The conversation turned wistful as all discussed what they’d wanted to be whn they grew up, a theme of missed opportunity that also suffused the episode. As Don said, “No one grows up wanting to be an advertiser”. It was a theme we’d return to later.

But the musing didn’t last long, as Pete’s first setback of the episode commenced. His surprising success at mending a leaky tap earlier turned inevitably to humiliation as it burst all over the kitchen, leaving (inevitably, again) the ever-manly Don to do the manly thing that Pete just couldn’t. Ken’s obviously not so worried; he just stood and smirked.

But it was the first in a long line of humiliations for Pete this week, as the script seemed determined to compress all his usual bad luck into a much shorter (and blackly funny) timeframe. His American Beauty-style fixation with a high school girl at his Driver’s Ed class seemed to be going so well… But things don’t go well for Pete, and he was left seething as she spurned him for a beefy high school jock with the all-too-accurate nickname ‘handsome’.

Later, as our heroes helped out with Lane’s recalcitrant Jaguar client, they found themselves in a high class brothel (typically, taken there by Roger), and we got an inkling of what’s really seething in Pete’s rancid little core. Humiliated once again by a prostitute’s faint praise of his biceps, he waited wearily while she tried various turn on techniques; the only one to which he eventually responded was, “you’re my king”.

There’s something desperately sad about Pete and his desire to be, basically, Don Draper; which was reiterated as he turned on a reproachful Don in the taxi home reminding Don of his own former infidelities. And unsurprisingly, given his growing guilt, Don was quick to agree, stating that he’d had everything (like Pete) and let it slip through his fingers. Together with his mellowing towards his ex-wife, this made it clear that he’s more than aware where he went wrong.

But fate (and the scriptwriter’s cruel word processor) hadn’t finished with Pete yet. It turned out that the brothel trip had cost them the Jaguar account; the CEO’s wife had found chewing gum “on his pubis”. Even Pete found that pretty funny, but Lane didn’t, leading to a slanging match (“all the hours I’ve spent on you to make you the monster you are”) and the surprising development of Lane challenging Pete to a fistfight.

Lane might be a steely businessman, but we’ve never had the impression that he was in any way physically tough. Clearly neither did Pete, who ended up on the floor with a bloody nose and a face full of bruises. It was an uncomfortable but irresistibly funny scene; I was with Roger when he commented, “I know cooler heads should prevail, but I really want to see this.”

While Lane celebrated his manliness with an embarrassing attempt to kiss Joan (and thank God she’s back at the office), Pete was reduced to sobbing in the lift. “I have nothing,” he wept at an embarrassed-looking Don. The irony being, of course, that it’s only true because he thinks so. He was summed up by Ken, off screen, narrating a story called ‘The Man with the Miniature Orchestra’, and sounding uncannily like Rod Serling.

This was a blackly brilliant episode. Less dark and intense than last week, it managed to interweave theme, character, and plot in some moments of desperate sadness and laugh-out-loud comedy. Particularly, it was nice to have some focus on Jared Harris as the prissy Lane, and Aaron Staton as the impossible to dislike Ken Cosgrove – the very antithesis of Pete Campbell.

If I have any complaints, it’s just that two episodes in a row with such a narrow character focus felt like the wider ensemble of the show was being neglected somewhat. Still, if Matthew Weiner keeps taking this approach, he could end up with, week by week, some acutely observed character pieces about everyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. My only request – please, more focus on Roger, and what’s happening with him and Joan.